I was born from a non-hugger, so all this current rigmarole about “can I even hug my coworker anymore” has me baffled. From childhood I learned the discomfort that hugs can cause, and was progressively raised to ask permission before initiating physical contact with another human being. If you come into my office at work crying I will stand up put my arms out and ask, “Are you a hugger?” If you are, then you are welcome to step into my hug. If you are not, then you can shake your head, continue weeping, and I will offer you a tissue. However, I will not force a tissue upon you and wipe your face, because what if you don’t like tissues?
One of my best friends is also a non-hugger. For ten years we have worked alongside each other, raised our girls together, and I have never hugged her. I’ve watched others hug her and seen her tolerate the contact. She’s never pushed back or rejected the hug, because she’s a polite person, but I always wonder why others’ need to hug is more important than her desire to not be hugged. Especially when she is in crisis, I marvel at how people unknowingly make the situation worse by hugging her.
As I troll the social network scene I notice person after person commenting on how uncomfortable this “no hugging” mandate makes them, and I think about all the people who have been made uncomfortable by their hugs. So I have come up with a rubric for hugging which I call “The Wet-willy Guide to Platonic Touching.” Here is how it works.
The Wet-willy Guide to Platonic Touching
Put yourself in a hugging scenario. Maybe a colleague has just returned from medical leave and you want to welcome him back. Perhaps you haven’t seen a client in a year and you find yourselves in a meeting together. After twenty years you see your old lab partner from college at the grocery store. Before you hug translate the action of hugging into a wet-willy.
For those of you unaware, the wet-willy is the process of sticking your finger into your mouth and thoroughly coating it with saliva. You then remove the dripping finger from your mouth and place it into another person’s ear and wiggle your finger around a bit. It’s a common practice among elementary aged boys.
So now, consider each of the scenarios above. Would you give that person a wet-willy? Of course it will depend on the relationship. If you and the colleague are good friends outside of work maybe an impromptu spitty finger in the ear will be fine. The client situation? Probably never a good idea. The relationship plus the public venue makes for an unlikely successful ear rooting. The old lab partner? Maybe the two of you enjoyed a carefree relationship in the past, but do you know where her ear has been or where she has been? Maybe she’s just been released from an anger management program and you could cause her to relapse into her old unwelcome bludgeoning ways. Maybe she’s joined a religion which does not allow for physical contact outside of marriage. Either way, probably not worth the risk to you or her.
Personally, I would not wet-willy in any of these situations. It just seems too perilous. If I’d had a prior wet-willy relationship with these folks, I might ask “Hey you wanna wet-willy?!?” or even stick my finger in my mouth and offer it, allowing them to run forward with their ear proffered.
Assuming you are in normal healthy relationships, there are probably situations where you don’t have to ask, and those will differ by person. I’d totally wet-willy my kiddo. I’d also do it to my husband, who would hate it, but it’s within the norms of our physical relationship. There are a few friends, and that’s about it. Now, consider who you would unabashedly wet-willy your life. Maybe you have a more physical family than I do, in which case your your brother, your sisters, your parents, your spouse or your child might love wet-willy contact. (And your brother will probably do it regardless just because it makes you uncomfortable, because that’s what brother’s do. Sibling relationships are based on forgiving cruelty.) If the person isn’t on your wet-willy list then don’t enter their ear without asking. Sure, you might get rejected, but a “no thank you” response and the shot to your ego is better than the alternative.
Now, let’s say you assumed incorrectly and the person you thought was accepting of wet-willies is not. You stick your finger in their ear and they shriek, “Oh gross! What the hell is wrong with you?” There is an immediate and appropriate response.
You say, “I am so sorry I made you uncomfortable. I won’t wet-willy you again. Is there anything I can do to make it better?”
Do not explain to them how you like wet-willies or how you thought you had a wet-willy relationship or how most people really like your wet-willies. No. Do not get mad at them because you are embarrassed they rejected you. Don’t shame them because they do not share your affection for spitty ears. They don’t need to know about how in your family wet-willies are the epitome of caring. Finally, in no circumstances is it okay to wet-willy them again, to show how really inoffensive your wet-willies are.
Now, go back and read the wet-willy instructions as hugs. Hugs aren’t that different. It involves even more body contact and on sweaty days or in crying situations there’s an exchange of bodily fluids. A hug can be just as invasive to an individual. So before you hug, just ask yourself, would I give this person a wet-willy without asking? If the answer is no, than it’s really simple to say, “Do you want a hug?” Wait for a response before acting, and respect the wishes of the person you care enough to hug.